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(I previously asked a related question about projecting myself onto my characters.)

I've read just few books where authors use their own life experience as the basis for the characters and plot (most recently, It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini), but most books I read have characters that are nothing like their authors, whether that's in personality, physical attributes like race or sex, background, or life-altering/major experiences, and have plotlines that the author hasn't lived.

Is it common for authors, especially major ones with bestsellers, to model characters and plots after themselves? Perhaps I just haven't encountered many authors who do this? And would it be out of place for me to model characters after my own experiences as well, given however many authors do the same?

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Yes, but there are different levels of it.

  1. Lifetime experience. This is more or less Autobiographical novel genre, and some of the greatest authors left a memorable mark in this field. But there are only so many books one can write about himself or herself;
  2. Writing yourself into a fictionalized setting. This does not need to follow author's life events, but the character is still quite recognizable for anyone who personally knows the author. It also does not have to be a main character, some writers like to make a small "cameo" in their works;
  3. Basing major character on author's persona. This probably happens very often. The character does not need to match author's gender, race or age, but it thinks and feels pretty much like the author would in the same situation. We can, unfortunately, also see how different characters sometimes are becoming "carbon copies", despite being very different in appearance and purported background;
  4. Basing character on aspect of author's persona. This is a high level of detachment. Author still uses his or her own personality to develop the characters, but only parts of it. This is how an author can develop a complex character without having a real life model for it.
  • +1 I was writing my answer as the same time as yours, so it's a bit parallel... – Chris Sunami Jan 11 at 19:10
  • you can also project your experiences into a metaphor that fits the world you are creating to model your characters around – BKlassen Jan 11 at 19:30
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While I couldn't give you statistics on how prevalent it is, certainly it is not especially rare. I can think of a few major, bestselling authors who have done this off the top of me head easily enough:

  • Kathy Reichs -> "Temperance Brennan" in the Bones books is an obvious one
  • Lawrence Durrell -> the narrator in Justine
  • Sylvia Plath -> "Esther Greenwood" in The Bell Jar
  • Hunter S. Thompson -> "Raoul Duke" in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
  • JK Rowling -> "Hermione Granger" in the Harry Potter books (in fact all three of the main characters are based of aspects of the author).

I could go on (but I'm sure you'd get bored!), basically it happens a lot!

As for whether it is out of place or not see my answer and of course the others! To the question explicitly about this here.

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Would it be out of place for me to model characters after my own experiences

I believe it would be. For practical reasons. How many times can you do that without getting repetitive, and making all your characters similar? Readers will get bored.

Also, "what happened to you" may seem emotionally intense to you, but real life just doesn't serve stories very well. At 19 I was in a multiple roll-over car accident at 75 mph (the speed limit on a freeway), I was a passenger sitting at the window, and came out literally without a single scratch or bruise. Tim was driving, he broke both his knees and his left shoulder. An ambulance came, I kept Tim company in the hospital while he got some surgery. But so what? End of story; this doesn't tie into anything in my life story. It didn't stop my plans (other than getting home from the mall). It didn't motivate me to do anything, other than not getting into another car driven by Tim. It did not change me.

You want your character's experiences designed to serve the plot. Unlike real life, in a novel things should happen for a reason, and the reason is to move the characters through the plot, and clearly make them who they are today, or the events are designed to reveal who they are inside. Their trials are tests of who they are.

If your own life experience helps you describe these invented experiences more realistically or vividly for the reader, then use that, but don't duplicate the experience, or crowbar in the experience. Understand you are writing to entertain readers, and what they read should matter to the plot.

The same applies to character development; we develop character traits with the plot in mind; sometimes these are traits to advance the plot (help solve the problem), or to complicate the plot. In that category of complications we can put negative traits that, in the end, we want our characters to change or overcome or get under control.

Some of their traits may need life-altering experiences; but don't include your own unless they will justify what happens in your plot.

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It all depends on your perspective. Yes, some elements of the author's life, personality and way of seeing things make their way into their writing. No, a work of fiction is not a biography of its author. In particular, authors tend to have written more than one book. They cannot all be the author's biographies, can they? Nor are their main characters all the same person wearing a different name (at least not when good writers are concerned).

An easy example: Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front was inspired by his own experiences during WW1. The main character bears some resemblance to Remarque; for example, if I remember correctly, there's mention of him writing, or at least that he used to write. The sense of disconnect when coming home for a furlough after having been at the front is also from his real experience. But All Quiet on the Western Front is not an autobiographical work. The characters in the story are not carbon copies of people he knew, and, of course, he didn't die in that war.

The same war has left its mark on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings; Frodo's struggle to return into the society he fought to save, Éowyn talking about how hard it is to be left behind when all the men have gone to fight - those are experiences Tolkien was familiar with. The second was his own, the first - he would have observed. But the War of the Ring is not WW1 in any way, nor is Frodo - Tolkien, though they share some similarities of character (such as the love of a simple country life).

If you wish, the author, like any man, must necessary have his understanding of the Truth - of Right and Wrong, of how things are, of how people are, etc. That truth would seep into everything that he writes, by virtue of it being the lens through which he perceives the world around him. Each story the author writes might explore a different aspect of that Truth, but the Truth remains. Over time, the way the author sees things might change, and then it is his new Truth that would be seeping through. That Truth would be at the heart of how his characters are shaped, how they see and understand the world around them. (They might not necessarily share the author's understanding, but they would in some way shed a light on it.)

For more specific story elements, the author would turn to things he had experienced, things he has learned, things he has read about (those too are way of experiencing things, indirectly). Those are the bricks of his imagination, from them he would construct the tower of his literary work. In those ways, characters would necessarily carry something of the author inside them.

If you wish, my character is not me. But I can only understand my character by putting myself in them - in their shoes, in their head, in their culture and upbringing and situation. In this way, my understanding of how my character would act is a reflection of me.

Furthermore, what I choose to write about, the situations my character must face, the obstacles they must overcome - those too are a reflection of me. A man who has not experienced WW1 couldn't have written All Quiet on the Western Front, nor would they have had any impetus to write such a thing. But the main character of this work is not "Remarque", a particular person, but an Everyman, as Remarque would have seen him.

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I can't say what fraction of authors or works do this (and I doubt anyone can), and I'm not sure how high it would have to be for the practice to qualify as common. But I'll comment on how an author might write based on their experience without basing a character on themselves, because the question suggests it's not obvious. Here are a few things to consider (note they can be mixed together in practice as well):

  • Authors often have polemical intent, and for maximum persuasion they may give a character experiences that would lead a person to the conclusions the author wants readers to adopt, because humans are more liable to change their mind because of that rather than arguments. But the author tweaks any experiences that convinced them of their current view, ensuring they started with a very different view and were the kind of person who'd go on a do-a-180 adventure. This is the "flat character arc", one of three fun story types discussed here.
  • The right person from an author's past to make the basis for such a journey may be someone they knew, not themselves. Indeed, they might never have changed their own mind on the issue.
  • The right person to adapt into a character might not be whoever changes their mind, but someone whose suffering or exploits make them rethink something. I have a feeling Dickens's works have far more examples of the latter than the former.
  • Meanwhile, if the reason to write from one's own experience is not so much persuasion as easy world-building, one might base the characters on those they knew (with properties blended in whatever way serves the story), or do something similar with the plot or setting as well or instead. The ways it can work are endless. You could argue several of Raymond Briggs's stories are based on his experiences in radically different ways.
  • Finally, "based on their experiences" is much more open-ended than you might imagine. For example, certain aspects of a person's childhood, adolescence, career etc. might be re-imagined in a sci-fi, fantasy, historical or surreal setting, or a "normal" place that's still not where it happened. Transplanting experiences may require rethinking the people present so much that no author surrogate fits.
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There are many variations on this. Some authors (Harper Lee) write "autobiographical fiction," novels based, with more or less fidelity, on their own experiences. Others (Woody Allen) project an author surrogate into all their work, even when the experiences are not their own. Others (Charles Schultz) acknowledge putting pieces of themselves in all of their characters, whether or not there are visible similarities to be discerned.

As with any writing question, there's no defined "right" or "wrong" to this, only a question of what works for you. With that said, you can certainly draw on your own history and experiences, even for characters who are not author-projections, and who are not living your life experiences.

For example, you may not have visited a new planet (like a science fiction character), but you've been to unfamiliar places. You may never have been starving, but you know what it feels like to be hungry. You may not be a detective, but you know how to put two and two together. And so forth.

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